I need to find a way to touch my refuge when I am in the midst of disturbance. The sweet part is knowing that, given enough time and space, finding my refuge has always been easy for me. That connection, that peace, arises organically. (Or maybe when I am not disturbed I settle into it.) But how do I learn to find it when I’m startled? Or when I’m resisting what is??!!? Lately I watch myself unable to stop, my mind in a flurry. I think I tend to live in that flurry when I have too much work or stress. I don’t know how to stay connected to myself without the luxury of time alone, large swathes of it to land again. Without that, I manage to touch down for moments, in sitting practice, writing, doing yoga, when I hear a raven caw or a coyote bark. And in a stressful time, a time of disturbance, I believe these are moment of genuine connection both with myself and my world. I am able to feel that solace. But then something happens outside me, or my mind returns to a source of agitation, and I am disturbed again. It’s tempting for me to feel disheartened. But I’m going to keep reaching for kindness instead. I’m going to grab for that “sweetheart approach” whenever I remember, even when I’m already roiled, even when using it doesn’t seem to make a dent in things. I’m going to believe turning toward myself with that sweet reassurance, reaching for a connection with myself and the world around me—I’m going to believe that’s my way forward, my way in. I’m going to believe in my effort. I’m going to let it be enough.
I am standing in front of the automatic doors when the train arrives at the station. My mother is sitting on a cement bench beside the track watching the train pull in. She is six feet away. When the doors don’t open, I pound on the window. She looks up. I have some crazy unformed idea she might call out to a conductor outside the train, tell them her daughter is stuck in the last car. Instead I run upstairs. “No! No!” I yell. And, “Wait!” When I find the conductor in the next car, the train is just beginning to pull away. He won’t do anything to stop it. “This isn’t an emergency,” he says. I scream at him and apologize in the same breath. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t reach my mother on her cell phone, and I can’t calm down. An hour and a half later I am at her house in the foothills, but my heart is still pounding. That night I play those moments over in my head, the shock of watching her outside while I’m trapped on the train. Why did this happen? Maybe because this was not about me. It wasn’t personal. I got to watch my body dump crazed amounts of adrenaline into my system. I remember when I was 24 and my stepfather had a seizure in the middle of the night. I was incoherent when I dialed 911. And even though this is not me yelling at the bus driver, even though this is not me yelling at the notary public, there is something reassuring about the idea of all that adrenaline messing with my mind, as if, just maybe, it’s not completely my fault. Something cracks open in me, a small fissure, a glint—the beginning, I hope, of acceptance.
I get overwhelmed. It isn’t just all the failing but all the learning that goes with it. I’ve always had a kind of keen reflective eye, am often swift to see what I’m doing “wrong,” how I might do it better. My first year of teaching was a nightmare. I would walk out of each class with a mental list of 18 things I could have done differently. Today, too, I keep watching myself fail, dizzy with discernment. I guess, really, I am shining lots of little lights everywhere I look. After talking about this with my friend Richard and realizing I need to be able to accept what I’m doing in order for my awareness to effect change, I understand how this is in play for me always. Not only is my acceptance not deep enough, not broad enough, but each time I see a truth about my actions, about my reality, I expect myself to be able to change it. So in that first year of teaching, in every patch of my life when learning is accelerated, I put crazy pressure on myself to be able to fix things as soon as I recognize them. No wonder it’s overwhelming. Exhausting, stressful, even discouraging. This is where I need to develop that kind and curious mind we’re always talking about in mindfulness work, yes? This is where I want to be able to say to myself, “Ah. Look at that.” This is where I want to be able to pay attention without putting pressure on myself to change. Just, “Hmmm, how interesting.” Open palmed, my dear. Open palmed.
I am on the phone with my friend Richard. He is talking about rereading a mindfulness book, about the idea that all we need to do is shine a light on a problem. We don’t need to do anything, only shine the light. I am grumpy with him, get an icky tone in my voice. I’m annoyed—angry, really—because I have been shining a light for years on all kinds of problems, and it hasn’t done any good. (Well, not any good, of course, but the problems persist.) After we hang up, I think about this for days. I try to understand why it makes me angry, why I am so bent out of shape by this claim, so twisted up inside. Then it comes to me. This only works if you accept whatever it is you are shining the light on. This doesn’t work unless we accept ourselves or the situation. There is a letting go in it, an opened palm. I know I am not there yet. But maybe I am inching my way toward it?
In one week in October I cause seven scenes. I rant in a public email in my new job, take an exasperated stand against a colleague I never liked in a public email at my old job. The first turns out to be a mistake—I jumped the gun. The second makes me feel mean, even though I think she had it coming, even though people are glad I said what I said. I end up having to send another public email to apologize. I should have sent a private note, I say. In the real world, I storm out of a mail center after trying to get a form notarized. “I’ve never had a good experience here,” I say in a loud voice as I push my way out the door. The city bus I’m on pulls up at the bus stop directly behind my transfer bus, and I hurry toward it. The driver pulls away as I approach. “No!” I yell. And then, “Fuck! Fuck!” I can’t believe this is happening. No one says a word, and I hate that I am spewing this ugliness out into the world. I now have six blocks to walk with my heavy bags to catch my Amtrak bus downtown. At Mami’s, the universe gives me lots of practice, endless chances to respond with composure and grace. I fail again and again and again. As the weeks unfold this pairing of opportunity and shocking failure presents itself so often there is no time to dwell on my shortcomings. I can only exclaim, only keep trying. A friend at sangha tells me his zen teacher says we do this until we wear ourselves out, until we are exhausted. I wonder when that will happen to me. And what might happen next?
When I catch myself in the mirror this morning, I like the look of me in my favorite green cotton top and Mami’s old purple sweater. I have a bag of bird seed in each hand on my way out the door to feed them, and I smile at my reflection, unexpected joy rising. I went to sleep early last night, slept long hours with loud rain sounds coming through the open windows. For me, my heart’s ability to lift, maybe even her agility, seems linked to being rested, even to eating well. I am convinced much of being happy is tied to simple body chemistry. When I’m worn out from being too busy, from navigating grief or anger, from the stress of a new job, this kind of unlooked for joy doesn’t spring up in me in the same way, and I tend to miss it, that lightening, that natural lifting of the heart. I have two friends who are in the midst of weathering two huge losses, and I know they’re exhausted, would read it on their faces if they hadn’t told me. I want to be able to bundle them in blankets, sit them by a fire on this wonderful day of our much-needed rain, place warm mugs of my split pea soup in their cradled hands. I wish I could take over the demands of their day to day lives, let them move between the fire and their bed and back again, let them do nothing but sleep and dream for a week, for two, for three. I know they haven’t stopped being grateful, feeling lucky even now, treasuring the richness of life. But I suspect their hearts aren’t agile right now, may be too bruised, too tired to lift very far. I want to tuck their blankets in around them, pour them hot tea, remind them it will take time. “That surprising joy will be back,” I whisper. They smile at me, silent, love in their eyes.
Hank shook his head and muttered under his breath. Then he shook his head again. He wished Sally was here. She’d know what to do, what to say to his leftie child, this daughter of theirs. Her daughter maybe more than his, but he loved her like there was no tomorrow. He just couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her sometimes. This living with them again wasn’t something he saw coming, but here she was, rearranging the kitchen cupboards, hiding his ashtray. Hell, yesterday he even found a full box of his Frosted Flakes in the outside garbage can. What was she thinking? And now she was on to his politics, chastising him for not trying harder, for not being willing to camp out with her in protest at the community center. He was too damn old to sleep on pavement in the middle of December. And she was too damn old to be living with her parents. When was Sally going to get back, anyway? How long could it take to get her toenails done, for Christ’s sake? Since when did she even have her toenails done? He muttered again, opening the can of dolphin-safe tuna Alexa had bought for the cat. It was probably her idea, the toe painting deal. His wife had been perfectly content with doing her own toenails all these decades, and now when she should have been here helping him deal with her damn daughter, she was off getting her toenails doo-dawed instead.
[Editor’s note: written from a prompt from Creative Writing Prompts.]